Racial inequality remains a pervasive problem in UK universities, as it does across society more broadly. In this context, argues Angelina Osborne, the recent decision to axe a course centring the experiences of the African diaspora sends a worrying signal about the strength of commitment to improving representation and allowing greater space for diverse voices and narratives in disciplines such as history.
“The purpose of Black scholarship is more than the restoration of identity and self-esteem: it is to use history and culture as tools through which people interpret their collective experience, for the purpose of transforming the actual conditions and the totality of society all around them.”
The University of Chichester’s decision to cancel the Mres (master’s in research) course in the History of Africa and the African Diaspora in August 2023 has been met with national and international dismay. The university has claimed that the course had not recruited enough students to financially justify its continuation.
Consequently, current students have been left in limbo without guidance as to how they can complete their degree. Each student on the course was undoubtedly attracted to the opportunity to research histories that centred African diasporic experiences. Interest in this area has grown, alongside the frustration towards the dominant Eurocentric memorialisation of British histories that educators and scholars have been campaigning against for many years.
A telling move
The news has produced a groundswell of support and solidarity, from graduates of the course (many of whom have gone on to study at doctoral level) to academic and community historians, for the course’s creator and director, Professor Hakim Adi. For decades Professor Adi has been at the vanguard of the study of Black British history as a scholar and as a champion for its inclusion in the national curriculum and within the academy. He has produced acclaimed works of Black British and diasporic intellectual traditions, encompassing dialogues with Marxism, postcolonialism and new perspectives on Black British histories. The decision to cancel the programme with the apparent “cost of delivery outweighing the income from fees received” has resulted in Professor Adi being made redundant.
Many of those who have signed the petition view this decision as a retrograde step taken by the university. For them, it amounts to cancelling the only course of its kind providing the opportunity to study an area of history that has been severely underexplored within the academy and that has sought to centre and un-silence Black British historical narratives. The shortlisting of Adi’s latest book, African and Caribbean People in Britain: A History for the Wolfson Prize adds an ironic twist to this tale. It begs the question that if Adi’s research on Black British history can be considered for history’s most prestigious prize, why can it not find a permanent home within the academy?
The decision overturns one of the key recommendations made at the History Matters Conference in 2015, convened by historians and teachers to highlight the low numbers of history students and teachers of African and Caribbean heritage in Britain. This recommendation was established to encourage people of African Caribbean heritage to take history degrees at graduate and postgraduate level, with the aim to broaden the study of Black British history within the academy, to research histories that interested them, and as Manning Marable’s quote expresses, to interpret their collective experiences. Another aim of that conference was to encourage and support teachers, supplying them with pedagogies to confront and address the lack of interest in history as a subject at GCSE level, which involves both raising the visibility and addressing the silences of Black British histories within the curriculum.
Black British history remains an embattled discipline that remains precarious within the academy, where small advancements are countered with considerable setbacks.
The overall aim of the first History Matters conference was to challenge typical British historical accounts that have been distorted into narratives that have tended to underemphasise or ignore the histories of people of African and Caribbean heritage, upholding the belief that any contributions they made were minimal, or non-existent. That Adi has only recently produced two well-received publications, one charting and documenting the Black presence in Britain and a collection of new scholarship in Black British history by emerging historians preceding the news of the MRes suspension, appears to further rub salt into the wound. Black British history remains an embattled discipline that remains precarious within the academy, where small advancements are countered with considerable setbacks.
The far-reaching consequences of a lack of representation
What’s happening at Chichester is a reflection of the challenges of representation, and subsequently the attitudes towards Black intellectual thought within the academy. In 2018, the Royal Historical Society’s Race Ethnicity and Equality Report laid bare in stark terms, the level of inequality and ethnicity bias that exists in the teaching and practice of history in UK universities. This report noted that of the 3,115 academics employed in UK university history departments, 15 identified as either Black African or Black Caribbean.
The likelihood, therefore, of reading a text authored by a Black British scholar or being taught by one, remains extremely small, and the implications of this in terms of representation in higher education, or the richness of the diversity of scholarship, are profound. This statistic is also compounded by the number of students of colour studying history experiencing feelings of isolation and a lack of staff they can relate to. This sits alongside experiences of racism and microaggressions and a lack of support to deal with the emotional and psychological impact of these experiences and having little to no confidence in their institution to address these issues in any meaningful way. The few Black lecturers are often selected to engage in more service-related activities related to diversity, which impacts on the time they allocate for research and writing.
In her excellent and insightful article “Power in the Telling: Community Engaged Histories of Black Britain”, Melesia Ono-George gives further consideration to the implications outlined above. She notes the “absence of Black historians… is not just a question of diversity or representation… but a rather much more significant issue of equity and social justice”. She goes on to say that “a lack of Black historians means that people of African ancestry… are rarely the ones determining the research questions or focus, and thereby deciding what historical research is important and what forms of knowledge are of value.”
The goal of historians of African heritage, whether in the community or the academy, is to dedicate themselves to research that will uplift their communities. With student populations enrolled in universities becoming more diverse, the need for a more representative faculty becomes more urgent. This is why Black history, and representation matters, and why the closure of the MRes course at Chichester matters. It had produced a critical mass of Black scholars who have been given the space to explore the research that matters and is of value to them. However, it seems that when Black historians centre their research on issues germane to their communities, the legitimacy and value of their scholarship is questioned. This must change.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
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